Edition 15: Book Review: Sub Rosa by Amber Dawn
Reviewed by Sophie Yorkston
This is story of Little, a wayward girl scraping by. At the crux of her desperation, when she offers her virginity for a new opportunity, Arsen arrives and whisks her away. She’s offered a home, and kindness, and maybe love, but the offer itself is enough. When Arsen has won her mind, he says he wants to take her to his home on Sub Rosa, but to be accepted there she has to survive the ordeal of the Dark.
In the novel, the Dark represents having to survive the work: all the fear, the unknown, the pain and the degrading way women can be treated. So early in the novel, it is graphic and confronting. The novel suggests that survival, getting to the other side by earning a “dowry” (or safety net), you can come out on easy street. It’s also a quiet nod to the less resilient women who can’t survive that kind of life.
This story might be part fantasy but is sadly true to life. It’s a story of lost girls, and sadly what happens to women out of options—the sale of their bodies.
Sub Rosa is the glamorized ideal of what sex work would be if women could chose: healthy, happy, inclusive, with Johns who are at heart looking to be better people, and Daddies who care about the girls who work for them. The existence of children in the business is touched on but given a wider berth; the younger characters’ working exploits are not investigated in the novel.
The residents of Sub Rosa, the Glories, with their magical abilities and their “live ones”, live a charmed life of some freedoms, safety and comradeship of their houses. But on the other side of the Dark, everyone becomes their epithet: real names and the essence of who the residents were is lost.
When one of the Glories leaves Sub Rosa but brings the police to their door, the street goes into blackout, for fear of being discovered. So the sharp and smart Little returns for a second time to save her new home. What she discovers is what keeps the women in Sub Rosa, and begins to undo the trappings that bind those she cares about to that life.
One of the characters on the periphery of the book and who continues living in the dark, Jellyfish, is an example of the fact that sometimes a Glory may survive the dark times, but be forced back in by the actions of others. She is both lost and not, simultaneously.
The book’s gritty realism reveals how much Amber Dawn knows of the subject. Couching the reality of many women in terms of a pocket of magical realism still leaves us with this: women run out of options and it lands them in sex work.
I wasn’t sure how I would feel about the subject matter going in, being aware of the premise of the book before I’d started. It’s confronting, the way life can trap a woman into this life. I wanted to hate the reasons for her life change, but ended up encouraging Little to survive. When she begins to recall her former self, it is reflective of how women seem to separate and lose themselves in the lives they lead in the sex work industry.
There are lots of straight out descriptions of sexual activity, so it’s probably not appropriate for anyone younger than late teens. Sex is treated rather detachedly, but I felt honestly, given the setting of the novel.
I thought Amber Dawn could have done more with some of the story arcs of the Glories, and to make Little’s story richer, as she was such an interesting character. That being said, it was so gratifying that the Glories’ relationships were embraced, and Amber Dawn fills those connections with sisterly love, respect and mutual support.
The ending was open ended, for both Little and Jellyfish, which I understood but lamented the lack of a more definite ending for both.
Sub Rosa is easy to navigate and storylines plain enough to not be too heavy reading. Its truth and subtext are affecting, a fitting tribute to all those who fall through the cracks, who need to be understood and supported rather than pitied. If for no other reason, take a read to open your eyes and heart to the plight of those we often revile.
Sub Rosa, by Amber Dawn
Publisher: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2010
Sophie is a scientist, aspiring writer, sci-fi and fantasy nerd. She is an editor with IFWG Publishing and has been Editor In Chief of SQ Mag and SQ Magazine, the previous incarnation. She also contributes book and film reviews. She is currently living in Vancouver, Canada.
You can find her in a few different places: @Smoph on Twitter, Sophie Yorkston – writer on Facebook, and at her blogs: Smoph’s Musings and Smoph Writes.